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Part 2: John Carlos, 1968 U.S. Olympic Medalist, On the Response to His Iconic Black Power Salute

Web ExclusiveOctober 12, 2011
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In part two of our interview with 1968 Olympic medalist and international civil rights icon, John Carlos, he talks about the shocked response of the audience in the stadium when he raised his fist in the now iconic Black Power salute. He also describes the positive response he received from the black community in the United States upon his return, even as harassment by federal agents drove his family apart and ultimately helped lead to his wife’s suicide. Peter Norman, the silver medalist who joined Carlos and his fellow U.S. medalist, Tommie Smith, faced discrimination in his home country of Australia for supporting the salute. But Carlos says, “He never denounced us.” Today, Carlos says young athletes regularly seek his advice on becoming politically engaged. Click here to see Part 1 of this interview.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests today are John Carlos and Dave Zirin. John Carlos has written the book The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, with sportswriter Dave Zirin, forward by Cornel West. This is part two of our conversation. We talked about that iconic moment in 1968 in Mexico City, not days after the Tlatelolco massacre that led to how many hundreds, if not more than a thousand people, perhaps 2,000 people, killed right before the Olympics. And there was John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their hand up on the Olympic medal stand in the Black Power salute, without their shoes, protesting poverty, with beads around their neck, protesting lynching. That moment, when you, John Carlos, were on the medal stand, what was the response of the stadium, as the Star-Spangled Banner played?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, it was just like a vision that I had when I was a kid. When we went out and when then national anthem started to play, you know, everyone started to sing. And then, all of a sudden, when we raised our fists, everyone shut up. I mean, when I say “shut up,” I mean a total silence in the stadium. That shock went through everyone, and they had to absorb the shock. And then, once—when they came back in to continue singing the national anthem, it wasn’t a song anymore. It was something like they were screaming, like “We’re going to shove this anthem down you guys’ throat to show you how much we think about you.” You have to take into account, although the games was in Mexico City, we had a large contingency of United States spectators, and they made their feelings known in that precise moment. Like you say, sunshine left, and the stormy weather came. As we left the victory stand and started back, the boos started coming, the profanity started coming, the trash that was being thrown out in the stands started coming. And I’d see that certain skirmishes was going on inside the stands, because I think people with poverty or low income was in the stadium, as well, and had—I feel that they understood what was going, so it was certain skirmishes taking place, too.

But it was a bad situation, and I think we were prepared for it. I know I was prepared for it, just based on the vision that God gave me as a kid. However, I didn’t take into account, once I return home, that it would affect my wife and my kids. You know, being young, when you do something, you’re doing it because you think it’s the right thing to do, and sometimes you’re more focusing on yourself than focusing on your family. So if I ever had any major regrets about what I did in the Olympics, that would be the regret that I didn’t secure my family better.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How did the rest of the black community—how did the black community respond, though, once you returned to the U.S.?

JOHN CARLOS: Ninety-nine-point-nine percent positive. And that 0.1 percent of those individuals that was old school didn’t particularly understand. Old school, that was in the United States military, said—pretty much felt that we set them back or we set the black race back a hundred years. I’ve heard statements like that from old individuals. But those was few and far in between. Many, many, many, many people had come out in support, in many ways in terms of tears, in terms of saying, “Man, I love you,” in terms of saying, “You’re a hero.” And other individuals throughout the world—you know, you go to Africa, and they call you a god and a king and all that kind of stuff. So it made it very clear that we reached a lot of people, we touched a lot of people.

And then, over the years, it had evolved. You know, originally this was a black thing, for people of color, black people who was oppressed. But then, throughout time and travel, you begin to realize that it affected every ethnic group. It wasn’t just blacks, or it wasn’t just Hispanics. It was affecting people in Czechoslovakia and everywhere that was being oppressed. So it was—that demonstration was for oppressed people across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: Your wife committed suicide?

JOHN CARLOS: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. She couldn’t take it no more, you know, having a phone tapped every day, being followed every day, your kids going through changes every day.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, phone tapped, being followed?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, you know, the FBI and the CIA, they’re some magical people. They can do whatever they want to do with the phone. I’m sure my TV right now is probably looking at me more than I’m looking at it. You know, so, they do things such as that. And, you know, we had to endure, you know, to be followed, to receive anonymous letters stating that your husband did this, your husband did that. It got my wife to the point where she was paranoid. She didn’t know what was real and what was Memorex anymore. And it got to the point where it became too much for her, and she decided that she wanted to leave. The biggest hurt for me in my life was that day. And then, the second thing was, what can I do to save my kids, to keep my kids strong and protect my kids? That was my main focus after that, to shelter my kids and give them the best possible opportunity in life to be all that they can be. And God has blessed me there, because I got the greatest kids in the world.

DAVE ZIRIN: You know, Amy, you asked before—

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, you asked before about things I learned doing the book. And I was so struck by the level of vindictiveness of the U.S. government in the early, mid-1970s, in terms of how they related to John Carlos, because the movements themselves had died down by that time. John Carlos was just a guy trying to figure out how to scrape together enough money to keep his family together. And yet, still they tailed him. Still they sent letters to the home. Still they made an effort to show their presence in John Carlos and his family’s life. Now, why do that, unless you’re trying to send a kind of message out there that says, if you cross us, the price will be that severe? I mean, it was COINTELPRO writ large.

And it’s an ongoing process that—you know, that I think we still do deal with today and that I think a lot of activists in the Occupy movement are reckoning with right now. And I think, frankly, that’s one of the reasons why John Carlos was received with such incredible warmth when we were down there at Occupy Wall Street, because there’s a sense that he’s a fighter, a survivor, and also somebody, as he said that night, who has no regrets.

AMY GOODMAN: It is the most famous image in sports history—


AMY GOODMAN: —that image of you and Tommie Smith with your hand up in the Black Power salute, as you honored the Olympic Committee for Human Rights. What is that—the Olympic Project for Human Rights. What was that?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, it was a collective group of young individuals that felt like we can have a better society than what was being shown. We felt that all individuals should have an opportunity to get a decent education, all individuals should have an opportunity to live in the area where they feel their finances can take them. We felt that all individuals should have an opportunity to raise their kids in a clean, healthy environment. These are the things that we was concerned about, not just here in the United States, but throughout the world. We were concerned about social issues, as well as Muhammad Ali getting his title back. As Dave said, we was concerned about the fact that as racist and biased as South Africa was at that time with the apartheid, we was concerned about how are you going to open your doors of the Olympics—supposed to have moral character within these sports—and then you’re going to allow South Africa and Rhodesia to come in. We had concern about them, just as if I had the same concern about what was happening in China when China was hosting the games. You know, there’s moral character that’s supposed to be involved in the games, and it seemed like they closed their eyes to it.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. King was with you right—I mean, this is the year, of course, just months before, he was assassinated.

JOHN CARLOS: Dr. King was going to actually come out to be second in command to support the Olympic boycott. That was his wish and his dream.

AMY GOODMAN: And the boycott was boycotting..?

JOHN CARLOS: Boycotting the Olympic Games. We chose to say we would prefer to step back and not approach the games at all. After the boycott was called off, I had to search my soul and determine as to whether I was going to go or whether I was going to stay home. I chose to go to the Olympic Games not merely for the Olympic spectrum, in terms of going to win a medal, but I just felt like America was the greatest nation in the world in track and field at that particular time, and another fellow would have got up there and won that medal, and I don’t think he would have represented John Carlos the way he felt that he needs to be represented at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you call Peter Norman a hero? He was—he was the silver medalist, on the stage—


AMY GOODMAN: —on the medal stand with you, wearing the patch of the Olympic Committee for Human Rights.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, you know, I look at it like this. I look at, you know, the beaches of the world. And every grain of sand on these beaches, I think it’s a human life involved. I think that God reached down and picked up a grain of sand, said, “Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.” I think out of all the other sand that was down there, no one could have been what Peter Norman was. I don’t think 10 million individuals would have stepped up and had the courage to say, “I’m in support of you, and I’ll show the world that I’m in support of you by wearing this button.”

And take into account this. When we came back to the United States, everyone was upset. Australia at that time, it was running parallel with South Africa with the way they treated Aboriginal people. When we got back to the United States, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took a terrible whipping. I said, but they can go on one side of town and whip up on Mr. Smith and say, “Oh, we’re tired of beating up him. Let’s go on the other side of town and find Carlos and whip up on him.” But when Mr. Norman left and went back to Australia, it wasn’t a switch off. They beat him, and they beat him, and they beat him. But he never denounced us, he never denied us, he never turned his back on us, he never walked away from us, despite the fact that they drove him to alcohol, despite the fact that they drove him to nervous breakdowns, despite the fact that they broke up his family—which they broke all of our families up—despite the fact that they had the Olympic Games to come back to Australia, and the greatest sprinter of all time in Australian history, and not to have a voice or a role in the Olympic Games. Peter Norman is an enormous man.

AMY GOODMAN: He was a white athlete.

JOHN CARLOS: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.

DAVE ZIRIN: They wouldn’t even let him hold a candle at those 2000 Melbourne Games, and they completely shut—and he was the most decorated sprinter in the history of Australia. But the Peter Norman story to me that really captures who he was has to do with when San Jose State built these 23-foot statues of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on their campus. And John can tell the story, or I could tell the story. I know you might want a break, if I could—

JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, well, you go on. You could tell the story.

DAVE ZIRIN: And if I mess it up, you’ll tell me?

JOHN CARLOS: I’ll fill it in.

DAVE ZIRIN: OK, just checking. Well, they made the decision to make this amazing work of art, these statues on campus. And they were just going to have Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with a blank space where Peter Norman stood. And when John heard about that, he said, “Oh, no, no. I don’t want to be a part of this. And I don’t even want this statue if Peter Norman’s not going to be on it.” And the people at San Jose State said, “Well, Peter said he didn’t want to be on it.” And John said, “OK, let’s go to the president’s office and get him on the phone.” So they called Peter Norman from the president’s office at San Jose State, and sure enough, they got Peter on the phone. I believe Peter said—what did he say? “Blimey, John”? What did he say?

JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, “Blimey, John. You’re calling me with these blimey questions here?” And I said to him, I said, “Pete, I have a concern, man. What’s this about you don’t want to have your statue there? What, are you backing away from me? Are you ashamed of us?” And he laughed, and he said, “No, John.” He said—you know, the deep thing is, he said, “Man, I didn’t do what you guys did.” He said, “But I was there in heart and soul to support what you did. I feel it’s only fair that you guys go on and have your statues built there, and I would like to have a blank spot there and have a commemorative plaque stating that I was in that spot. But anyone that comes thereafter from around the world and going to San Jose State that support the movement, what you guys had in ’68, they could stand in my spot and take the picture.” And I think that’s the largest thing any man would ever do. And as I said, I don’t think that my co-partner, my co-heart, Tommie Smith, would have done what Peter Norman done in that regards. He was just a tremendous individual.

DAVE ZIRIN: And when there are student actions on campus, when there are rallies, that’s where students stand to address crowds—the platform, where Peter Norman was on that day. I mean, it—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: When was the statue built? When were these statues built?

JOHN CARLOS: In 2005, I believe.

DAVE ZIRIN: Five, it’s 2005. It was the year before Peter passed away too soon. And—

JOHN CARLOS: They were built by an enormous artist by the name of Rigo 23.


JOHN CARLOS: He’s a world-renowned artist. The students searched high and low. You know, and you sit back and you look at it. They said, “Well, you know, it’s a black activity. We need to find a black artist.” And my attitude was, no, we need to find the best artist. Mr. Rigo happens to be a white individual, but he is a genius in the work that he does.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was 2005, but you stood at the Olympic medal stand in 1968. For those decades, you weren’t having monuments built in your honor. Talk about what happened and the jobs you tried to get and couldn’t, and the jobs you did get.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, you know, you say I wasn’t having monuments built. I think I was having monuments built. But it just wasn’t here on this planet. OK, I look at things—everything I do, I look in the eyes of God. And I think God had monuments built based on who I am and what I am and what I’m all about, relative to here in the United States or in the world, for that matter. You know, I think Mr. Smith and John Carlos, I think we were so far ahead of the game, until people had to circumvent their minds and focus and concentrate and have some dialogue and discussion about what had taken place in 1968. That was a very volatile time in the '60s. And then for this to come about, many people had fear. They didn't know what that was. I mean, we had the Black Panthers going through. They were giving the Power sign, as well. So, right, quite naturally, they see us getting to the victory stand. They forgot that we didn’t have bullets strapped across our chest, and they forgot that we didn’t stick the finger up in the air when we went up there. They forgot that this was a very humble, nonviolent statement that we made. So, you know, in time, people had to gather themselves and put the process through their minds and really have some dialogue and discussion about what this really was. It took 43 years, and we still don’t have everybody on board in terms of having some clarity as to what this was all about and why it was necessary. But we have a lot more understanding today than we had back at that time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you have young athletes now coming to you who want to become more politically engaged, seeking your advice?

JOHN CARLOS: Twenty-four/seven. And it’s a good thing. What I try and illustrate to many young individuals that—remember, I had just turned 23 years old. I didn’t wait until I was 63 or 73 to stand up for what I felt was right. And for you guys to have this image in your mind and want to do something, it’s a greater power than me that’s registering in your minds and your hearts about trying to stand up for what’s right in this society. You know, you sit back and you think about—it’s a great thing to get up and lecture to 10,000 people and say, “Yeah, I’m lecturing to 10,000,” but I’m only trying to communicate to that one, because that one you can put enough sunshine and love in his heart that he can explode throughout the world with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk—


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the response of athletes, like George Foreman, for example?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, George Foreman is a great individual. See, a lot of people think that George Foreman was a bad guy because George Foreman put the American flag up. You know, I had an American flag on my shirt, as you saw last night. I’m not ashamed of being American. You know, I love America. I was born in America. George is not ashamed of being an American, either. And he waved the flag in the Olympic Games, and he had every right to wave the flag.


JOHN CARLOS: In 1968, right. So a lot of people try and make George—he was opposed to what we did. George wasn’t opposed to what we did. He was happy. He was a young individual. And I don’t think George was as sophisticated or educated as much about the civil issues, the race relations, you know, coming out of Texas and growing up the way he grew up. I don’t think that George was aware nowhere near as much then as he is aware now. You know, and I think George took a lot of unnecessary heat as being the villain, so to speak, on the left. You know, a lot of people on the left thought, oh, George, he disrespected us, or he hurt us, or he didn’t stand up for us. Totally wrong. George was a tremendous individual during that time in '68, and he's even greater in life today.

DAVE ZIRIN: I mean, George Foreman grew up with no food on his plate in Texas, with nothing. And I remember interviewing George and him telling me this story about being a young man and being terrified by the things that Muhammad Ali was saying. And I said—


DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, around the issue of race and racism. And he said, “I was terrified when Muhammad Ali, the champion, said he was a Black Muslim.” And I said, “Oh, did being a Muslim scare you?” And he said to me, “Man, I didn’t know what a Muslim was. That didn’t scare me. I was scared that he was calling himself black.” He said, “We were Negroes. We weren’t black. We were colored. We weren’t black. It scared me that someone would stand up and say they were black.” And so, that’s where George was coming from when he got to the Olympic Games. But, I mean, the generosity of George Foreman towards John, towards this book, I mean, tells a story all its own, quite frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: And other athletes?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, my goodness. I mean, it’s so interesting, because—

JOHN CARLOS: Well, let me just say this about—

DAVE ZIRIN: Bill Russell.

JOHN CARLOS: Let me say—well, Bill Russell is a soldier in arms. Jim Brown, another soldier in arms. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another soldier in arms. But when you sit back and you think about the athletes in general, those individuals that was young enough to make that Olympic team, you know, in retrospect, when you sit back now and you look at it, and many individuals come back now and they want to be in the picture. You know, they want to be remembered that, “Hey, man, I was in that era.” When the statues were built, a lot of students came by, student athletes that was dealing with me, came back and said, “Man, we should have a brick with our name on the base of it.”

And I tell them, I say, “You know, I love you guys, and I’ll love you ’til the end.” I said, “But relative to you getting in the picture, you can’t get in the picture. Relative to you having a rock with your name on it, you can’t have that.” And they didn’t understand. I said, “Well, let me explain it to you.” I said, “When we were young, we were idealistic, and we had a dream that we could make the society a better place for all people. So we chose to say, how will we bring attention to this plight? Let’s propose an Olympic boycott.” Well, a lot of people didn’t understand the effort and the need for a boycott.

So we got on this train, and on this train we’re rolling down the track. And as we’re rolling down the track, people were now talking about, “Yeah! America! Bring home the gold!” Everybody was excited. But we on the train, we’re trying to educate these individuals as to why we thought it was necessary to have an Olympic boycott, opposed to you having your 15 minutes in the sun. So, a lot of them came around and said, “Well, we understand. So let’s take a vote. Alright, we vote that we’re going to attempt to do this boycott.” So, oh, we agree? We’re going to attempt to do it? We stopped the train. We got out. We put banners all up and down the train: “1968 Olympic boycott proposal.” Now all of those people that was out there waving before we put those signs up, they’re gone. But as we’re rolling down the track, now the missiles started coming, the firebombs started coming, hitting the train. This is all in theory, right? Hitting this train. And bang, all of a sudden, there’s smoke and there’s fire. And then I start to see people bailing, bailing out.

And now, 43 years later, people want to come back and say, “I deserve to be in the picture. I deserve to have that rock.” And I tell them, I say, “Well, if you deserve to have it, open your shirt. Let me see your burns. Pull up your pants leg. Let me see your burns. Show me the burns on your back, on your hands or your arm.” I said, “Mr. Smith did show me his. Show them, Tommie.” I said, “You want to see mine? If you didn’t have burns on you, you bailed the ship. Now you want to come back? You can’t stand in the picture, because we can’t change the course of history. We’re going to love you for the end of time.” But when you sit back now, people were reflecting, because we’re old men now—we’re reflecting on the crossroads that we had in life to make a critical decision. Now people are sitting back, saying, “Wow” —yeah, my grandkid, my grandson, my granddaughter asked me. They say, “Pop pop, wasn’t you in those Olympic Games? What did you do?” So, it’s a critical time for us in our senior years right now in terms of whether we made the right decisions or the wrong decisions.

DAVE ZIRIN: I have to say, that’s exactly what John Carlos said down at Occupy Wall Street to all the young people there, and it really connected. It was a remarkable thing to see that kind of generational tranference, where John said to them, “This is your crossroads. And just like Mexico City was the ultimate platform for me to be seen and heard in 1968, the ultimate platform, the ultimate beacon today, is down there at Wall Street. And you guys are on the right side of history right now, and you will thank yourself that you are making this choice.”

AMY GOODMAN: The women athlete at the time, in 1968?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, the women athletes—we talk about this at great length in the book, because this was a problem John had with a lot of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, was that there wasn’t outreach made to women athletes. And particularly some of the women athletes were far more courageous than many of the male athletes, both on issues of gender and on issues of race and racism. And this showed itself after the women won the four-by-100. They won the gold medal relay. And the captain of that relay, Wyomia Tyus, who was a athletic giant, a two-time gold medal winner in the hundred-meter dash—

JOHN CARLOS: The first.

DAVE ZIRIN: The first ever.

JOHN CARLOS: The first 200—two-time winner, back-to-back hundred-meter champion.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, first ever. Wyomia Tyus. She held up her gold medal at the press conference. And remember, this is in the context of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, quote-unquote, “getting stripped of their medals” and getting kicked out of Mexico and being these evil dragons. And Wyomia Tyus held up her medal and said, “We dedicate these gold medals to John Carlos and Tommie Smith.”

JOHN CARLOS: Tremendous. And I might add, that was watered down, because they didn’t want that to get out, so the media just kind of discarded that, pushed it to the side.

DAVE ZIRIN: Once again.

JOHN CARLOS: But we felt that a lot of women were very strong, and we just feel very sorry that there wasn’t—more inclusive into the whole production of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And John Carlos, the significance of having your—well, writing your story, together with Dave Zirin, having a book called The John Carlos Story?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, I think the significance is, as—I believe it was the young fellow that just died from Apple. He made a statement that was—

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Jobs.

JOHN CARLOS: Steve Jobs, right. His statement was profound in terms of saying, I wanted my voice to be heard by my kids and my grandkids. There’s so many stories written about John Carlos, stories written directly about me or indirectly about me. None of these individuals called me on the phone or came and sat down with me to have a discussion. Most of the articles that were written or books that were written were written off of articles that was in the paper. Most of the articles in the paper were bogus articles. So, therefore, I felt it was imperative, based on the fact that I’m getting older, I’m starting to forget a lot of things, my eyes are not as sharp as they used to be—

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you now?

JOHN CARLOS: Sixty-six. And that’s a long way from 23. So, you know, I felt like, before I lose it all, I want to get with the right person in life and do this book for my kids and all of their peers and their grandkids and all of their peers, as well, because I think it’s a remarkable life that God—the roller coaster God put me on, and I’m here to tell them about it. I think it’s a marvelous situation for Dave Zirin and I to come together. I think we—

AMY GOODMAN: How did you come together?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, goodness. Can I tell this?


DAVE ZIRIN: Alright. I mean, this is—this is real. And this is actually part of the story, is, in 2003, I was working for a small town newspaper, African-American-owned newspaper, and it was the 35th anniversary of the '68 protests. And I thought, “Wow, I want to try to interview John Carlos,” because that image was something that was in my college dorm room. So, I Google-searched “John Carlos,” and up comes a web page, and it has a phone number at the bottom of it. So I figure, “Oh, this must be some sort of management service or something.” I called the phone number. I hear, “Hello.” And I say, “Yeah, I'm trying to get in touch to talk to John Carlos.” He goes, “This is Carlos. Who’s this?” And I was like, “Uh, uh, uh, can I call you back? I’ve got to write questions down.” Like I just couldn’t believe that John was that accessible. But—and John has been working the last several decades in the public school system in California as a guidance counselor. So I was actually catching John in his office at school, with these students running in and out and whatnot. And it was—it was amazing to talk to him.

And actually, it was very lucky, because I got to speak with him right before this recent kind of ESPN revisionism, where it’s like, “Oh, let’s re-embrace John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Let’s appreciate what they did.” And so, I was able to talk to John and really get this kind of unvarnished sense of, “Wow, you know, I’m not treated like a hero now,” as he said to me in 2003. “I’m treated like somebody, if you ever know somebody who survives cancer, where it’s like people are sort of like slightly wary of you and say, like, ’I’m so glad you’re well,’ and then step away.” And it’s that sense that John gave me in that call, started a relationship.

And then we spoke together on a couple of panels. And John is—and John, you can shut your ears if you don’t want me to swell your head. John is one of the most gifted public speakers I’ve ever seen. And so, at that moment when we would go out and do these talks together, I was like, how great would it be if we could go out on a book tour together? And without me even saying that, John then approached me and said, “You need to write my book.” So I was just like, “Hmmm, I was thinking that.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about your life, John. What happened after you came back from the Olympics?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, I think the main focus when I came back was to realize that I was in this storm, and the main focus within that storm was to do whatever is necessary to do to support your family. You know, I had individuals come to me with drugs in my house and tell me, “Man, it’s going to be rough. Go that way.” I looked at them. I said, “I appreciate it. Thanks, but no thanks. Y’all can move on with that.” I had to take jobs as security guards in night clubs and so forth [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: No endorsement offers?

JOHN CARLOS: No one had endorsement opportunities before 1968. The great Wilma Rudolph never had endorsements. The great Jesse Owens, long after he became this hero, after they recognized his greatness, he never had endorsements. Endorsements came about after 1968, after we went to the victory stand. Relative to endorsements for John Carlos, it was unheard of. And, you know, I was in the zone where they was saying, “Burn your draft card. We don’t want you.” You know, so those things never materialized for me. But you had to still—it wasn’t meant to materialize for John Carlos. It was meant to materialize for the young athletes that came after, just like this demonstration wasn’t meant particularly for John Carlos at that moment, because things wasn’t going to change overnight. But it was meant for to be a better opportunity for young kids and my kids and their peers after me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were a guidance counselor?

JOHN CARLOS: Yes. I just like working with kids, because kids keep you young. You can give them a vision as to how they can build their foundation in life. I think that, through all, I was a very piss-poor student—couldn’t spell, couldn’t write, couldn’t do any of that. But I realized when I was a kid—they used to say—you didn’t have dyslexia, you’re just dummy. And they would put the “dummy” down the center of your head and put you in the corner for the world to see. But I knew I was smarter than a lot of individuals out there. But I felt that my greatest asset was to build a foundation around education, even with the frailties that I had at that particular time. And I invest that time in young kids and making them understand, if you want to be successful in life, you have to build that foundation in terms of education.

And I always use, you know, certain quaint little phrases, you know, to get their attention, like, “Do you go to school, or do you go through school? You know, listen to what I said now: do you go to or through?” And then I say to them, I say, “You know something? What happens to you when you don’t eat?” Some say, “Well, you get sick.” I say, “No, you don’t get sick. You die. If you don’t eat, you die.” I say, “Now, what happens if you don’t eat education?” I say, “because education is food for life. I say, “If you don’t eat education,” I say, “what happens to you then?” “Well, you die.” I say, “No, you don’t die. You wish you was dead, because you have a bad life for the rest of your life.” So, these are the things that I do in terms of trying to illustrate to kids the value of them going and building their education, because when you have knowledge, you can go anywhere on the planet and stand on your own.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think that kind of knowledge necessarily makes you political, though, the kind of education that children receive?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, it depends upon how well you know the man in the mirror. You know, what floats your boat. You understand? If I know me, and I know that I’m doing well, but everyone around me is doing poorly, then I want to say, “Why is it that I’m doing so well, and they’re doing so bad?” You know, like a guy came to me one time to try and buy me—a government official. “John, what do you want?” That was the question he asked. “What do you want?” You know, I’m young. It blew me away. What do I want? No one has ever asked me this question. I thought about it for a second. I said to him, I said, “You know, I can’t ask you for every black person or person of color in the world that you give them what you offered me,” because they offered me the big house on the hill, whatever car I wanted, plus millions in the bank. And I said to him, I said, “You know, I can’t be concerned about everybody in the world.” I said, “But if you’re going to give it to me, all the black people up and down my street, you’ve got to give them the same thing.” And he looked at me, and he said, “Why?” I said, “Because if you give it to me, that means my wife and—my wife and I, we would have to cater to them, have them come to our house for the barbecue or come to our house for the dinner, come to our house for the social activity, get in our pool.” I said, “My wife and I would like to go to their house and get in their pool and go to their house and have the social dinner, too. So, open up the gate and give everybody the same opportunity you’re offering me.”

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the ESPN special. What was that about?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, I think ESPN had a great vision as to how we can honor these individuals, as well as maybe put the light on us, as well as doing something remarkably well by bringing Tommie Smith and John Carlos to the forum as the greatest courage individuals of that decade or of the century, so to speak. It was a great experience for my wife. It was a great experience for my kids. It was a great experience for Tommie Smith and John Carlos to be honored by their peers. All of the greatest athletes were in there that night. They all stood and gave homage to us.


JOHN CARLOS: In Los Angeles, California, at the—

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, the ESPY Awards.

JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, the ESPY Awards was—what’s the arena? The—something new stadium they have down there, next to Staples Center.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, Staples Center. Staples Center, yeah.

JOHN CARLOS: But it was a terrific opportunity. And my grandson had an opportunity to take part and be there and experience this thing. It was as spellbinding for me that night as it was for my grandkids to come to the first book signing, as well. So, you know, I mean, if you stay in the game long enough, and enough people wake up, your day will come. And it’s a lot bigger than 15 minutes.

DAVE ZIRIN: There’s an interesting moment that happened a couple of months later that was connected to ESPN, where a football player for the Denver Broncos named Brandon Marshall said that if he scored a touchdown on an ESPN Sunday night game, he was going to take out a glove that would be half-black and half-white and raise it to the heavens. And it was going to be to commemorate the election of Barack Obama and be a symbol of how far we’ve come but how far we still need to go, hence half-black, half-white. That was just his thinking about it. And at the game itself, he did score a touchdown, but it was in the last 30 seconds, and his team—you would get a penalty for doing that on the field, and his teammates told him, “You can’t do it. You can’t do it.” So he took the glove out and then just put it back in his pants. And then, after the game, Brandon Marshall was crying, because he said, “I wish I had done it. You know, I wish I had done it.” And they went back to the ESPN SportsCenter, and they started openly mocking Brandon Marshall and making fun of him for having this idea. They said—they called him names. They made fun of his intelligence, and they said, “This guy needs a better speechwriter.”

And I thought that this really says a lot, because it’s so easy to honor the past and dress yourself up in the courage of the past. It’s a lot harder when you have to make these decisions in the present. Like, take Bud Selig, who’s the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Every year he honors Jackie Robinson and his courage. But when it came time to take a stand against moving the all-star game from Arizona because of their laws against Latino immigrants, Bud Selig was nowhere to be found.

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John Carlos, 1968 Olympic U.S. Medalist, on the Revolutionary Sports Moment that Changed the World

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